Whet Your Appetites

Scandal’s cookin’. Sure smells tasty:

Mitchell Wade, the corrupt former lobbyist who plead guilty in 2006 to bribing former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), is reportedly assisting “the government in investigating five other members of Congress,” according to a memorandum filed on Wednesday.

[snip]

Prosecutors drop tantalizing hints about an even bigger, ongoing investigation. Wade was debriefed in 2006 and provided “moderately useful” background information in another “large and important corruption investigation” that also has not yet resulted in any charges.

My mouth, it is watering.

Robert Gates Doesn’t Get the Boot

If Obama’s going to have to salt token Republicons throughout his administration in order to live up to the post-partisan promises, this seems like a decent start:

Following up on an item from Wednesday, I’ve been reading a bit about the various perspectives on whether it’s wise for Barack Obama to keep Robert Gates on as the Secretary of Defense. Slate’s Fred Kaplan, whose perspective on military and national security issues I regularly enjoy, described Gates as “an excellent choice” and “a stroke of brilliance.”

In his nearly two years at the helm of the Pentagon, Gates has delivered a series of speeches on the future direction of military policy. He has urged officers to recognize the shift in the face of warfare from the World War II legacy of titanic armored battles between comparably mighty foes to the modern reality of small shadow wars against terrorists and insurgents.

More than that, he has called for systematic adjustments to this new reality: canceling weapons systems that aren’t suited to these kinds of wars and building more weapons that are; reforming the promotion boards to reward and advance the creative officers who have proved most adept at this style of warfare; rethinking the roles and missions of the individual branches of the armed services; siphoning some of the military’s missions, especially those dealing with “nation building,” to civilian agencies.

From the start, he knew that he wouldn’t have time to make a lot of headway in these campaigns — which, within the military, represent fairly radical ideas. His intent was to spell out an agenda, and lay the groundwork, for the next administration.

I know. Kaplan’s laying it on thick, right? May be a little too starry-eyed to trust his judgement. That’s where Steve’s post from last week comes in:

Gates may be a leading member of Bush’s team, but he represents a complete break from the neo-conservatives who dominated the administration’s first term. Gates is considered a non-ideological pragmatist, who’s open to competing ideas, and who enjoys broad respect from the brass and lawmakers in both parties. In the midst of two wars, having a competent and qualified Pentagon chief, who has no partisan or ideological axe to grind, will bring a degree of steadiness and consistency that may benefit Obama enormously.

You know what he sounds like? An Obama Democrat. I don’t think Obama would be keeping him on otherwise – post-partisan stops at retaining the bumbling fuckwits that got us in to this mess. It seems Gates has been trying to dig out, and making a bit of headway even though the Bushies above keep trying to fill the hole back in.

I know a lot of folks are screaming for change, change, and more change. They want nothing but die-hard Democrats posted throughout the administration, a quid pro quo, in fact, for the Bush years. And that would be emotionally satisfying, yes. But it won’t get us anywhere. That would be playing the same childish games that Bush did.

So Obama reaching out to the two or three eminently-qualified Republicans left, holding on to the very few folks that somehow convinced Bush they were incompetent enough to serve the regime even though they were actually smart, tough, and independent-minded, that doesn’t bother me in the least. Maybe I’m not far-left enough, but I just can’t see punishing good people for the dumbshit they served under. If they’re good at what they do, that’s what matters. And it seems that Gates is good at what he does.

Besides, this shuts down a lot of the trouble Obama would’ve gotten in to had he appointed someone else more to the left’s liking. That’s how real governing is done.

We may not recognize it after the last eight years.

Ahoy, There! The Ship Be Sailin’ Tomorrow!


Ye don’t want to miss the boat, now, do ye? I know ye be nursin’ a turkey hangover, an’ ye might be wonderin’ where all the rum’s gone, but elitist bastards stop for no ill and no holiday. Get yer links in to me, or ye’ll be regrettin’ it. I’ll be watchin’ for ye until the clock strikes midnight.

NaNo sufferers – I know ye don’t be havin’ time for articles. We’ll take a snippet o’ prose instead. I be thinkin’ that’ll be elitist bastardly enough.

Happy Hour Discurso

Today’s opining on the public discourse.

Um. Ew:

What media genius in the Chambliss campaign approved this spot? Because nothing says “I deserve your vote” quite like inappropriate contact with a prepubescent girl.

And, um, “Big Daddy”? Geebus.

You know, it wasn’t a bad ad until the end there, when he mashed his hand all over her breast buds. There’s a certain age at which girls’ chests become off-limits. “Vote for my big daddy” indeed. Bit o’ advice to Georgia: don’t.

(My NaNo-addled brain can’t remember if I’ve highlighted the following bit before or not. If I did, just do me a favor and pretend it’s fresh news, mkay?) The last thing we need if more fucking Cons in the Senate, anyway.

Everybody knows we’ve got a ginormous financial crisis on our hands. Everybody knows that our bailout is supposed to have some oversight, yet there is no arse in the chair that’s supposed to be overseeing. The Bush regime did something nearly sane and chose Neil Barofsky, a former federal prosecutor, to sit his arse down in said chair and watch our hundreds of billions of dollars like a hawk. Barofsky’s butt is needed in that chair starting now, he’s one of those rare inoffensive-to-both-sides sorts, and everyone knows it’s in the country’s best interests to get him confirmed.

Everyone except the Cons. Here’s how they put “Country first!” rhetoric into practice:

Last week, Sen. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the banking committee, issued a little-noticed statement saying that although the nomination “was cleared by members of the Senate Banking Committee, the leadership of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and all Democratic Senators,” it was “blocked on the floor by at least one Republican member.” (itals ours.)

Senate rules allow any senator to anonymously block a vote on confirmation to any federal post, for any reason.

The rationale for the move remains unclear. But a Washington Post story from a few days before Dodd’s statement offers two suggestions. It notes that Barofsky supported Barack Obama, and describes an unresolved “battle between the Finance and Banking committees over which has jurisdiction over the confirmation process.”

Blocking an urgent nomination because the nominee, like 52 percent of voters, supported Obama seems petty even by contemporary GOP standards. But a congressional turf war over jurisdiction seems only slightly less so. So either of these two explanations would be a pretty damning indictment of Congress’s response to the crisis.

No wonder these holds are anonymous. Whichever obstructionist fuckwit is playing political games with the country’s future would get their ass reamed by their constitutents, not to mention hunted down by an angry mob of taxpayers.

“Country First” my ass.

Doesn’t that just make you sick? But I hope not too sick – Bush is busy ensuring people can’t afford to get treatment:

As rising unemployment swells Medicaid rolls, the Bush administration issues a new federal rule that would allow states to “deny care or coverage to Medicaid beneficiaries who do not pay their premiums or their share of the cost for a particular item or service.”

In what the New York Times describes as a “sea change” in Medicaid, states will now “charge premiums and higher co-payments for doctors’ services, hospital care and prescription drugs provided to low-income people under Medicaid“:

The administration acknowledged that ’some individuals may choose to delay or forgo care rather than pay their cost-sharing obligations’…The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 13 million low-income people, about a fifth of Medicaid recipients, will face new or higher co-payments. Most of the savings result from “decreased use of services,” it said.

Rather than the Bush administration’s approach of forcing poor Americans to pay more for health care during an economic crisis, the federal government should increase FMAP — the percentage the federal government reimburses states for Medicaid — and expand the program to allow more Americans to buy affordable health coverage.

And Karl Rove thinks our healthcare system is just dandy the way it is:

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, Karl Rove applauds Barack Obama’s appointment of a “first-rate economic team,” cheering the selections of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers, Council of Economic Advisers chief Christina Romer, and OMB head Peter Orszag.

But while issuing compliments of most of Obama’s nominees, Rove issued this back-handed swipe at Melody Barnes, who ThinkProgress first reported would be chosen to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council:

The only troubling personnel note was Melody Barnes as Domestic Policy Council director. Putting a former aide to Ted Kennedy in charge of health policy after tapping universal health-care advocate Tom Daschle to be Health and Human Services secretary sends a clear signal that Mr. Obama didn’t mean it when his campaign ads said he wouldn’t run to the “extremes” with government-run health care.

During the campaign, Barnes helped inform Obama’s health care approach — the same approach he is now promising to pursue in office. Obama pledged to bring together “doctors and patients, unions and businesses, Democrats and Republicans” together to build on the existing system and “reduce the cost of health care to ensure affordable, accessible coverage for all Americans.”

Y’see, in Rove’s eyes, it’s okay to talk about giving healthcare a new coat of paint (lead-based, of course), maybe duct-tape a few of the broken bits, move the potted plant over to cover up the hole in the wall, but actually fixing it – that’s just extreme, that is.

Whatever Karl Rove finds unacceptable is perfectly acceptable to me. And why he thinks his opinion is worth two tugs on a dead dog’s dick is beyond my ken. But apparently, both he and Bush think they still have influence, and that they know better than the majority of the country and our incoming president what’s best for us.

Laura Bush is under almost as many illusions as Rove and her husband. She thinks they’re leaving an actual legacy to be proud of:

The Bush family have recorded a Story Corps interview about George W. Bush’s presidential legacy, and what they’re most proud of. This is what Mrs. Bush had to say

Well, it’s certainly been very rewarding to look at Afghanistan and both know that the president and the United States military liberated women there; that women and girls can be in school now; that women can walk outside their doors without a male escort.

[snip]

Well, then. I would have been more charitable, but since Mrs. Bush has chosen this as her legacy, allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Bush’s legacy

Afghan police have arrested 10 Taliban militants involved in an acid attack against 15 girls and teachers walking to school in southern Afghanistan, a provincial governor said Tuesday. “Several” of the arrested militants have confessed to taking part in the attack earlier this month, said Kandahar Gov. Rahmatullah Raufi. He declined to say exactly how many confessed.

[snip]

And how, in an occupied country where the situation was so settled that we could leave it to go to war with a disarmed Iraq, did the Taliban gain the ability to attack little girls with impunity?

For seven years, the Bush administration has pursued al Qaida but done almost nothing to hunt down the Afghan Taliban leadership in its sanctuaries in Pakistan , and that’s left Mullah Mohammad Omar and his deputies free to direct an escalating war against the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

The administration’s decision, U.S. and NATO officials said, has allowed the Taliban to regroup, rearm and recruit at bases in southwestern Pakistan . Since the puritanical Islamic movement’s resurgence began in early 2005, it’s killed at least 626 U.S.-led NATO troops, 301 of them Americans, along with thousands of Afghans, and handed President-elect Barack Obama a growing guerrilla war with no end in sight.

Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest levels since 2001; the Taliban and other al Qaida -allied groups control large swaths of the south and east; NATO governments are reluctant to send more troops; and Afghan President Hamid Karzai faces an uncertain future amid fears that elections set for next year may have to be postponed.

Nevertheless, a U.S. defense official told McClatchy : “We have not seen any pressure on the Pakistanis” to crack down on Omar and his deputies and close their arms and recruiting networks. Like seven other U.S. and NATO officials who discussed the issue, he requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

“There has never been convergence on a campaign plan against Mullah Omar,” said a U.S. military official. The Bush administration, he said, miscalculated by hoping that Omar and his deputies would embrace an Afghan government-run reconciliation effort or “wither away” as their insurgency was destroyed.

And so, the Taliban regroups, little girls end up scarred for life, and we chalk up yet one more horrific example of Bush’s fuckwittery.

There is nothing this man is leaving behind that isn’t tainted, nothing that isn’t damaged, nothing that was worth the cost. Nothing. If these people consider themselves good Christians, I’d suggest they start repenting. They should be performing penance – and not this “say a few prayers and it’ll all be better” shit but real, fucking, sacrifice and suffer and work yourself to death to make it right penance.

For how long? Well, lessee… how long is it ’til the next century, again? That’ll do – for a start.

Progress Report: Oops

43,101

I was supposed to be much further along tonight, but I made the mistake of deciding to go back and bung in the list of famous atheists, with little thumbnail bios. Sounds simple, right?

No.

Not when you have to sort through some rather extensive lists, which you whittle down by well-known names, further contemplating whether that name is well-known because Christians already know and despise that atheist, and then trying to phrase the bio so that you’re not plagiarizing Wikipedia… I should’ve given it a miss and waited to add it in the revision stage.

Heh heh heh whoops.

And I’m not even close to done with it. Ah, well.

I spent the last bit of the night revising Rule #9. I didn’t hit on the Constitutional question – I might do that elsewhere in the book, but it really doesn’t belong here – but I did find your suggestions useful, and I hope this works:

9. Absolutely under any circumstances never ever bring up that old “atheism is a religion too” chestnut. Atheism is a philosophical stance, a way of thinking about the world that is profoundly irreligious, or simply a lack of belief in anything supernatural. In the immortal words of my friend Howard, “Atheism is a religion the way bald is a hair color.” Atheism is different from religion in many ways, but perhaps the most important is this: if empirical proof of God were presented to us and verified by science, we’d become immediate theists, just as you would become a “unicornist” if unicorns were discovered living in some remote forest. You may find it impossible to comprehend a life without religion and thus think of atheism as a religion, but your thinking it doesn’t make it so, no more than if I were to call your Christianity a form of atheism because I can’t comprehend a life with religion. Besides, people who say things like “atheism is a religion, too” are just trying to discredit atheists, and showing that they have no good argument in the process. You don’t want to look ridiculous, so don’t make that mistake.

I can already think of a few minor changes to words that would make that clearer, but damn it, I’m tired.

As for the famous atheists, I have a lot of names, including of all people Allan Pinkerton of Pinkerton Agency fame. Whod’a thunkit? I’m thinking of sticking Ron Reagan in there just to twist a few conservative noses. The fact that the son of their hero is a ballet dancer and a liberal has got to kill them – the fact that he’s an atheist, too, is just the insult to injury.

Yes, I’m an evil atheist. Why do you ask?

I’m also a very tired atheist. And I have got nearly 7,000 words to go. Argh.

If anyone has a good argument as to why theology isn’t philosophy, and knows of groups where atheists and Christians are working together in harmony to stop fuckwits from destroying the world, now is the time to say so. I could surely use your help.

Friday Favorite Exchange This Week

Crap in a hat, I nearly forgot it’s Friday. Time for something favorite, and the choice is easy: you guys.

The vast majority of my commenters here are outstanding. One of the absolute joys of writing a blog is having a comments section, in which you often say things that make me laugh, weep, think, and marvel. I can ask a question, and I get answers. The book I’m writing now has been shaped in no small way by your input and assistance. I’ll never be able to thank you enough.

I don’t often highlight specific comments, because I don’t like to play favorites, and it’s usually too difficult to choose between you all. But for the purposes of this week’s Friday Favorite, I’m extracting the exchange that had me absolutely howling:

Howard said…

One more thing: When the topic of “what atheists believe” comes up, I like to say, “I believe in chairs.”

When someone offers me a chair, I sit in it. Given that there is a nonzero chance that the chair will collapse, spilling me onto the ground (as I can personally attest), this is a remarkable leap of faith. And yet it is one I make on a daily basis. I don’t stop to evaluate the structural integrity of every chair I’m offered, I simply trust that it will support my weight and offer sweet respite from the tedious grind of standing upright.

And yet, despite my miraculous faith in chairs, I know that my belief is easily falsifiable. And on those rare occasions when I suffer a bad chair, I know that it is the chair that has failed, and not I who has failed the chair.

To which stevec said…

Howard, I would disagree that you have faith in chairs. You have plenty of evidence (in the form of past experience) that chairs generally work. And if you were to sit down on a chair, and it were to creak portentously, you might well get up and take a hard look at the chair, and maybe gingerly test it a bit before sitting on it again.

To put it more shortly, you do not appear to believe in the structural soundness of chairs to a degree which exceeds the available evidence. And that is what faith is, as best I can tell, believing something to a degree of certainty which exceeds what it warranted by the available evidence. So, to be blunt, I doubt your faith in chairs. You are no chair-believer, you.

Brilliant.

While I’m singling people out, I want to speechify Woozle, George, and Cujo359, who have all worked their guts out sending me material that’s proven extremely useful, clarifying my thoughts, and providing the support and encouragement that this book so desperately needs. All of you who have commented or emailed me have been of vital service, but those three have really taken this project to heart, and so have earned an extra tip o’ the shot glass.

I know you all have extremely busy lives. I know you probably have eleventy-one thousand better things to do than hang about here, adding your wisdom to my work. The fact that those of you who have commented on this book-in-progress, no to mention those who have read and commented on my other posts, have found it worthwhile to add your insights is incredible to me. There’s no greater gift you can give to a writer.

I need to work on this whole becoming rich and famous thing so that I can gather you all together in a real cantina, and show my appreciation with a lavish application of food, drink, and entertainment. You deserve nothing less, and a great deal more.

Muchos gracias, mis amigos. Salud.

Wu Li: Five-fold Path to a Story


I. My Way

Stories change their writers. They shape us as surely as we shape them. They set us on paths we never thought we’d follow. When I left home for college, I thought I was writing a quest novel. But the story was already changing, and so was mine.

I’d figured on an English degree, but within the first semester, I realized I needed more. My Western Civilization class had made me realize I’d only tasted an atom of the ocean. To build a world, I’d need far more than my paltry bit of knowledge. I’d need world history, because other civilizations are an excellent inspiration for alien cultures. I’d need geography, geology, and astronomy. I’d need comparative religion, because other worlds wouldn’t believe the same way we did.

Comparative religion led me to Nina Pearlmutter, one of the most incredible philosophy professors I’ve ever come across in my life. Eastern philosophy hadn’t even been on my radar before she gave me a sip of Buddhism. A Buddhist Jew? How the hell does that happen? She made me
realize there was a dramatic amount of knowledge out there I hadn’t even tasted.

Jim Bennett, who taught my geology course, hooked me on harder science with humor and simplicity. I’d meant to focus on English, but our English professors were, ah, decidedly not the caliber of my philosophy, science and history professors. Out on its ear went the English degree. Into Western Civilization II, Eastern Philosophy, and Physical Geography I went. This is what the story demanded. I could smith the words. What I needed was the raw knowledge to craft into something greater than the next Forgotten Realms ripoff.

II. Patterns of Organic Energy

Physical Geography led me to an uncomfortable realization: if I wanted to create a universe for my characters to live and breathe in, if I wanted to do this thing right, I’d have to delve into the hard sciences. I’d rather chosen fantasy to avoid that, but then I read far too many books where the “world” was just a blob of a continent with a few islands thrown in, or a map of Europe turned topsy-turvy. Nothing for it but to go for the really big stuff. Understand how things really worked.

But I figured I could avoid quantum physics. Einstein didn’t like it, I’d heard – good enough for me. All I needed, after all, was enough hard stuff to figure out how planets got here, right? No need to torture myself. I’d glanced at quantum mechanics – it looked horrible. No way.

Working at a book store throws you in contact with books you wouldn’t otherwise do more than glance at. I kept having to shelves this little book called The Dancing Wu Li Masters. A lot of people bought it. I had no idea why. Utterly ridiculous title, even worse cover illustration, it was labeled New Age, and it had the word “quantum” on the back cover. Noooo thank you.

I think a customer browbeat me into trying it, but I honestly don’t remember. I just know I ended up at home with it, staring at it was a chary eye. Opened it up. Started reading.

It was like mainlining heroin. So hooked. Physics had never been my friend. Neither had philosophy, especially Eastern, to be honest, despite Nina’s genius. This book brought the two together and made me fall hard for both.

Schroedinger’s Cat. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Patterns of organic energy. Far from being a cold, clinical thing, it turned out that physics was a warm, wonderful, weird thing. Outstanding. From there, I had no choice but to snap up Steven Hawking, Richard Feynman, Michio Kaku, and a myriad other tremendous writers on physics. I was an addict. I’d take it in any variety I could get it.

Marrying quantum mechanics to Eastern philosophy had blunted its terror for me. It was just “patterns of organic energy,” which is what the Chinese word for physics means. It was bizarre enough for a fantasy writer to really get her teeth in to. If I’d had something like this early on in school, I would’ve gotten into calculus, and I would’ve taken as much hard science as I could lay my hands upon. The stuff was phenominal.

III. I Clutch My Ideas

The story was starting to force me onto another path, but I still thought of it as fundamentally a quest story. And, while I was using all of the things I was learning to spice it up a bit, I wasn’t letting it expand out and become what it needed to become. I wasn’t letting either one of us really grow.

As a writer, you have to stop clutching your ideas eventually, or you’ll strangle them.

Gradually, the story and the learning I had to do for it began to loosen my grip. The Dancing Wu Li Masters had shattered my assumptions about physics and philosophy. All of those meanings of wu li came dancing through my mind. Something there, something important, but I still wasn’t seeing it. I’d been raised with certain Views, you see. It takes a while to let go of the parochial view of the world and let your mind wander free. It takes a long while before you can hear what your story really is.

IV. Nonsense

I finally let go of the quest motif. Wrote, rewrote, and one day looked on all I had written and found myself appalled.

Western ideas. Christian themes. I’d expanded my view of the world considerably, but obviously hadn’t internalized it. Everything sounded like every other novel written by people who never left the West – totally parochial.

This could not stand. That was not what the story wanted to be. I could sense its misery.

Off to the mythology shelves. Back into the weird world of quantum physics. And the themes of The Dancing Wu Li Masters started dancing before me. Shades of the Eastern Philosophy class I’d take arose. If I wanted a different way of seeing the world, brother, that was it.

I’d never been all that enamored of Eastern thought. I became so. Because when you really delve into it, when you study both quantum physics and Zen Buddhism, you’re struck at first by how bizarre it is. None of it makes sense to a parochial mind raised on Christianity and Newtonian mechanics. How can something be a wave and a particle at the same time? How can someone be enlightened merely by being told to go wash his bowl? Just what is it with all this nonsense?

Chinese thought may not have anticipated the wonderful weirdness of quantum physics in quite the same way as The Dancing Wu Li Masters implied, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are, on a fundamental level, similar. They both teach us to see the world in an entirely different way. If you try to apply your ordinary way of thinking to them, you’ll see nothing but nonsense. Once you begin to understand them, you see that they’re not nonsense at all. And you will never see the world in quite the same way again, which is a fantastic gift for a fantasy author.

V. Enlightenment

When it comes to the story I’m telling over a series of books and short stories, yes, I’ve been enlightened. And I’ve been awakened to far more than that.

Zen Buddhism teaches a way of seeing wonder in the most mundane activity. Eating your meal and washing your bowl afterward are activities just as marvelous as a marathon meditation session. This moment is perfect, just as it is. This is where you find enlightenment. No doctrine, no dogma, can do it for you. Those things only get in the way.

Quantum physics and the hard sciences take none of the wonder from the world. They’re far more magical than magic could ever be. The chair I am sitting in feels solid, but it’s made of motion. On a subatomic level, it’s mostly empty space. That knowledge makes the mundane marvelous, just as much as Zen does.

SF writing is all about eliciting a sense of wonder. That used to seem like a very difficult thing to do, but now, I see the wonder has been there all along.

Standing outside my pointed-roof hut
Who’d guess how spacious it is inside
A galaxy of worlds is there
With room to spare for a zazen cushion.

-Basho

Illustrations: Wu Li, Boat Trip on the River Underneath a Buddhist Temple; Chinese calligraphy spelling wu li.